New Mexico school situation scientifically dubious

High school students wearing N95 face masks sitting at desks in the classroom during maths lesson. In the background female teacher writing on the blackboard.

The following opinion piece by RGF president Paul Gessing appeared in the Las Cruces Sun News on November 22, 2020

Recently, both the Santa Fe and Rio Rancho school districts joined Albuquerque and Las Cruces schools in abandoning any in-person learning. Instead, for the foreseeable future all learning in New Mexico’s largest school districts will be done online. The odds seem very good that this situation will continue into 2021 and possibly through the end of the school year.

Oddly, while Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham constantly tells us that her anti-COVID efforts are based “on the science,” leading health bodies like the CDC have recommended in-person learning. And, as a Nov. 16 email distributed nationally from the New York Times put it:

“The one indoor activity that appears to present less risk is school, especially elementary school. Why? Young children seem to spread the virus less often than adults do. “Research has shown that if you put social-distancing protocols in place, school is actually quite a safe environment,” Andreas Schleicher, who studies schools for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, told NPR.

Closing schools and switching entirely to remote learning, on the other hand, has big social costs. Children are learning less, and many parents, mostly mothers, have dropped out of the labor force. The U.S. is suffering from both of these problems and from a raging pandemic.

The upshot is that increasing numbers of parents have few choices when it comes to educating their children. That is, unless they can pay for and get their child enrolled in one of the religious or private schools around New Mexico that have been providing in-person learning throughout the school year (despite arbitrary occupancy restrictions imposed by the governor).

The governor and the union-dominated political power structure of the state has been implacably opposed to helping parents and families as they face dire challenges in educating their children thanks to the pandemic and the shutdown of in-person teaching. Earlier this year New Mexico sued the Trump Administration to stop any CARES Act funding from being directed to non-public schools, other states (including two of New Mexico’s neighbors) have found creative ways to directly help families impacted by the shutdown of in-person learning in many school districts.

  • Oklahoma is providing $30 million from the CARES Act to support families impacted by the virus-induced shutdowns. “These programs will allow for students and families of diverse backgrounds to access the quality resources they need in order to continue their education journey amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gov. Stitt.
  • Idaho has created a $50 million program using CARES Act dollars to spent on eligible educational materials, devices and services. Parents can apply for benefits totaling $1,500 per eligible student and a maximum award of $3,500 per family.
  • Texas used $30 million to help special needs students whose families have been forced to deal with a difficult situation in the pandemic. Families of some students with disabilities may be eligible for $1,500 per child in aid to use toward services including tutoring, therapy and digital resources.

But, here in New Mexico the options most children are really limited.

  • Students, often young ones without typing and computer skills engaged in virtual learning, sometimes without great Internet access;
  • Spending scarce resources in these difficult times on private schools while continuing to pay taxes for government schools;
  • Or, withdrawing students completely from government schools and having one or more parent or family member dedicated to educating children at home.

These are not great options for many New Mexico families. Returning to in-person learning is undoubtedly the best available option. It would also be great if New Mexico came up with something similar to what is happened in neighboring states at least as a start to helping families deal with the consequences of the ever-shifting educational playing field. Alas, New Mexico didn’t get to 50th in education by making good decisions.

Paul J. Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation.